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— You learn a lot about a director's concept of Hamlet the instant the guards appear. I've seen everything from German storm-troopers to surreptitious CIA types -- gray suits, sunglasses, ominous smirks -- to generic soldiers, Barnardo with a broadsword, Francisco an Uzi. Darko Tresnjak's Hamlet opens with guards in armor and chain mail, so heavy-laden they move as if arthritic. Tresnjak makes no visual attempt to tweak Hamlet with obvious modern angles. In effect, we see the play in Shakespeare's time, a turbulent world of ghosts, hellfire, and divine right of kings. The look's so apt, you want to quote Francisco, "for this relief" -- from forced significance and contemporary narcissism -- "much thanks."

Robert Morgan's excellent costumes bespeak the era. Women wear great-sized dresses and board-stiff bodices, their hair drawn back; the bearded, mustachioed men, wide-shouldered garb. All wear ruff collars, which look like fallen halos, the size depending on social status. King Claudius and recent wife Gertrude gleam with pearls and flecks of gold. Their clothes are so detailed they could pose for a van Eyck. Every move flickers in the candlelight, as if lit from within.

The spare, well-spoken production has some questionable choices. The most memorable effect comes just before the first-act curtain. After the players stage "The Murder of Gonzago," Hamlet's "mousetrap" to observe the King's reaction, a long bolt of red silk drops from the upper platform. It fans across the lower stage, like a roiling sea. Then it disappears, revealing Hamlet and Horatio delighted that their trap succeeded. It's a beautiful, blazing image, but it breaks the production's clean, minimalist style.

Other choices irk: like the gratuitous violence when Fortinbras wrings Osric's neck. More disturbing, Ophelia, it turns out, is pregnant. Previous stagings, wanting an explicit motivation for her madness/suicide, have done this. But it goes against the text and her protestations of virtue. Worse, that she's pregnant makes her (and Hamlet) a liar. Ophelia's one of the few characters in Hamlet who isn't two-faced, who isn't given to "ambiguous giving out." (Actor Michael Pennington says, "She isn't so much mad as unacceptably sane.") If we can't trust Ophelia's words, then something's really rotten in the state of Denmark.

In Jack O'Brien's staging, over a decade ago, Richard Easton was a remarkable Claudius: the life-loving, power-breathing King finally had it all, save for this gnat-like nuisance, dressed in black and whining to himself. Bruce Turk's Claudius has little upside; he's just villainous, almost to the point of twisting his trim moustache.

Charles Janasz's Polonius is near perfect. Actors want to make the old man just a clown, but he's not. As Janasz plays him, Polonius is a state department official but past his prime. He still has moments of insight (seeing the "method" in Hamlet's madness) but also lapses into encroaching senility that make him say foolish, often funny things. Janasz's Polonius, rightfully, is a comic character against his wishes.

The younger cast members, especially Corey Sorenson's Laertes and Joy Farmer-Clary's Ophelia, both one-note strident, emote the ends of their scenes at the beginning. And the minor characters project the sense that they're in Hamlet; the guards don't just guard, for example, they guard. But few Danskers know what's going on (even fewer that they're in a Shakespearean tragedy). The rest should perform their functions and maintain the appearance of normalcy at Elsinore Castle.

Celeste Ciulla's showcasing her versatility at the outdoor stage this summer. She plays haughty Lucetta in Two Gents, bawdy Mistress Overdone in Measure for Measure, and Queen Gertrude in Hamlet, the last a passionate woman in denial and an assertive force when she realizes she's been doubly wronged.

The night I caught his performance, Lucas Hall did a metamorphosis. At first he was just acting Shakespeare (and watching himself do it): he cried his tears, raised and lowered his voice at appropriate spots (and his arms, often stiffly in the cruciform position). And he never figured out how much "antic disposition" he should use. About two-thirds through, however, it was as if Hall grasped the impossibility of Hamlet's plight: revenge a death, kill the king, but stay pure and "taint not" his mind. Instead of just saying his lines, suddenly Hall meant them. From that point on, Prince Hamlet walked the stage.

***

Dr. Floyd Gaffney passed away last week. The UCSD emeritus professor of drama lived a life in the theater that enriched us all. His production of Fugard's Boesman and Lena, two decades ago at the ECC, is an all-time favorite. Floyd was such a major local voice, especially for African-American theater, it's impossible to summarize his achievements on the stage and behind the scenes, where he helped so many people. God, we'll miss him!

Hamlet, by William Shakespeare

Old Globe Theatre, Lowell Davies Festival Theatre, Balboa Park

Directed by Darko Tresnjak; cast: Lucas Hall, Bruce Turk, Sam Breslin Wright, Celeste Ciulla, Corey Sorenson, Charles Janasz, Jonathan McMurtry, James Knight, Ryan Quinn, Joy Farmer-Clary, Nathaniel McIntyre, Chip Brookes, Chris Bresky; scenic design, Ralph Funicello; costumes, Robert Morgan; lighting, York Kennedy; sound design and original music, Christopher R. Walker

Playing through September 30. Note: Hamlet runs in repertory with Measure for Measure and The Two Gentlemen of Verona; for days and times call 619-234-5623.

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